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4/14/2008
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Google's KML Format Approved As Open Standard

The file format used in Google Earth and Google Maps is already being used by Microsoft.

Google on Monday gave up control of its Keyhole Markup Language, or KML, in order that the file format used in Google Earth and Google Maps could become an international standard.

"Starting today, Google no longer controls KML," said Michael Weiss-Malik, KML product manager at Google, in a blog post. "The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), an international standards body, has announced the completion of KML's standardization process. KML has become an OGC Standard, and the OGC will take responsibility for maintaining and extending it. This transfer of ownership is a strong reflection of Google's commitment to open standards. Fundamentally, our interest is not to control information, but rather to encourage its spread."

The OGC includes 345 companies, government agencies, and academic organizations from around the world with an interest in geographic data standards. In addition to Internet companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, the organization counts as members the likes of Boeing, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to name a few.

KML was initially developed by Keyhole Inc., a geospatial visualization company that Google acquired in 2004. KML files define an XML schema for displaying and describing geographic data in two or three dimensions. Microsoft added KML support to its Virtual Earth geospatial application last October.

In a statement, Ron Lake, chairman and CEO of Galdos Systems, a geospatial infrastructure software and services company, said he was glad to see KML become an OGC standard. "We believe that this is a major step forward for the OGC and for the entire geographic information community, as it provides the first broadly accepted standard for the visualization of geographic information," he said.

Standards battles can often be quite contentious, as has been Microsoft's effort to get its OOXML specification accepted. KML, however, appears to have won approval without opposition, perhaps because Microsoft has already decided to use the file format.

Stefan Geens, who publishes the Ogle Earth blog, said in an e-mail message that Google's decision to give up KML for standardization signaled a transition from frenetic development to more careful, considered innovation, which will include input from other developers. "As for the competitive edge over Microsoft -- that comes from having had the first-mover advantage," he said. "It will take awhile before Microsoft's implementation of KML rendering catches up with Google on the more esoteric features, and until then people will regard Google Earth as a kind of reference/gold standard, which I'm sure suits Google fine."

Google says that there have been 350 million downloads of Google Earth. A Microsoft spokesperson wasn't immediately able to provide a figure for Virtual Earth. A comparison of the search terms "Google Earth" and "Virtual Earth" using Google shows 43,500,000 and 7,010,000 results, respectively. Using Windows Live Search, a "Google Earth" search finds 21,400,000 results, while a "Virtual Earth" search returns 4,290,000 results. Google Trends shows significantly more searches being done for "Google Earth" than "Virtual Earth."

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